Predestination

September 6, 2014
Sarah Snook in 'Predestination' (2014)
Sarah Snook in 'Predestination' (2014)

If you haven’t seen enough of Ethan Hawke in Boyhood, he reappears – and disappears, and reappears – in Presdestination, the third feature by identical twins, Michael and Peter Spierig, who were born in Germany but raised in Brisbane. The film is based on Robert A. Heinlein’s All You Zombies (1959), a short story about time travel that raises the sort of paradoxes science fiction fans have always adored.

Heinlein is one of those authors with a glamorous, cultish reputation who consistently disappoints. He bears out Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s view that science fiction writers fall into two categories: those with great ideas and a lousy prose style, and vice versa. Heinlein, like so many of his peers, wrapped some bright ideas in a dull carapace.

The Spierigs have kept the bones of the orginal story and developed a much larger, more complex scenario. The protagonist, played by Ethan Hawke, is a Temporal Agent who has the job of travelling back in time to quietly eliminate the causes of some crime or disaster. The nemesis that has eluded him so far is the “Fizzle Bomber”, a self-styled terrorist responsible for a series of large, deadly explosions in New York.

Hawke, who has gone undercover as a bartender, strikes up a conversation with one of the customers who works as a writer, under the nom de plume, The Unmarried Mother. Although this character, played by Sarah Snook, appears to be a man, he has spent much of his life as a woman. Both bartender and customer appear to be called John, which is another way of saying “John Doe”.

A large hunk of the movie is taken up with the Unmarried Mother’s story, as told to the bartender, but we are never quite sure what this has to do with the Fizzle Bomber. It is an intriguing tale, nonetheless, as Snook plays the role of Jane – an orphan girl of exceptional intelligence recruited for service in a brigade of inter-galactic courtesans, required to meet the sexual needs of astronauts. She never actually makes it to space, but it’s a diverting interlude.

Jane’s career as an astronaut’s companion is derailed by the discovery of her ambiguous sexual identity. It comes as a shock, as she has always seen herself as female. It’s a head-scratcher for the viewer as well, because Sarah Snook never manages to look like a man, regardless of the suits and the make-up.

Such gender-bending complexities, added to the paradoxes of time travel, create an intensely confusing plot. The kindest interpretation is that the Spierigs are generating a deliberate mystery, saving the thrill of revelation until the last minutes. Yet when that resolution arrives, many threads are left dangling. There was probably a neater, more elegant way of telling this story, but it retains the virtue of getting everyone talking, if only to say: “What the hell was that about?”

Predestination benefits from strong performances by Hawke and Snook, who are the only characters to enjoy any kind of profile. The partial exception is Noah Taylor, as Mr. Robertson, the boss for the Temporal Agency. The film has a very slick appearance, regardless of the tangled story-line.

There are a lot of rules to observe when you are a Temporal Agent, and Hawke manages to break most of them. This is standard sci-fi practise, opening the door to unknown disasters that prompt us to ponder mankind’s overreaching tendencies. As usual, whether it be time, travel, genetic engineering or artficial intelligence, there is the issue of technology advancing without a moral framework. If ever we do invent a form of time travel, it will generate a familiar set of ethical dilemmas, albeit on a gargantuan scale.

Many writers and filmmakers seem convinced that if time travel became a reality, shadowy government agencies would keep it top secret. It would be judged too rich in possibilities: too dangerous, too likely to inflame the paranoia or desires of the general public.

Predestination falls into line with this view, as Mr. Robertson and his colleagues behave like a group of super spies. The biggest dilemma, clichéd as it is, lies with the human element. Add one bad apple, a traitor or a headcase, and the carefully constructed checks and balances will swiftly decompose. By the end of this film, the process of decomposition is so advanced that many viewers will find themselves picking over the pieces for days to come.

Predestination
Written & directed by Michael & Peter Spierig, after a story by Robert A. Heinlein
Starring Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor
Australia, rated MA 15+, 97 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 6th September, 2014.